Usually, the most panicked and upset clients call me and when they have not filed their tax returns in many many years, and are extremely worried that by this inaction they will be arrested, or worse thrown in prison. Occasionally, clients are audited for non-tax problems ( for example workman’s payment insurance, highway permits) by the IRS or State of New York, and the auditor makes the discovery that the taxpayer has not filed their income tax returns in a long time. This “great” discovery causes a lot of angst to the taxpayer, but usually the IRS and the States are not quick to press charges if the tax returns are filed quickly (see list below of action steps needed). Typically, you only have a criminal tax problem is you intentionally do not pay the right amount of taxes, so usually they issue is manageable. Therefore, non filing typically does not cause the same level of problems are actively avoiding paying taxes, and your almost never going to jail. Please keep in mind, in New York State it is actually a felony to not file your income tax returns for at least three years in a row where you owe taxes for each of those years. It is not often that NYS Tax uses this law to charge a taxpayer with a crime, but I have seen it applied in hundreds of cases, so it is not overly rare that they do.
The IRS and NYS tax auditors normally take the approach of creating their own estimated version of the income tax return you failed to file (called a substitute tax return), and charging the taxes owed based upon their computation based on limited information. Please keep in mind they have no incentive to lower your tax bill, so their work is suspect. The crucial point is that the substitute tax returns tends to overstate the tax debt amount, since they give you no deductions and use the highest possible tax rate. As they say, you never get something good for nothing.
The very long standing IRS’s voluntary disclosure policy applies to a taxpayer who: 1) Informs the IRS or NYS that they failed to file a tax return, 2) You make the disclosure prior to being notified by the tax authorities, or before you are under criminal investigation for failing to pay the right amount of taxes, 3) File the correct income tax come returns, and cooperate with the tax authorities (NYS and IRS) in ascertaining their correct income tax liability, and 4) Make full payment of the amount of the sales or income taxes due, or if are unable to make payment in full, to create a monthly tax payment plan for the tax balance owed.
If you follow these steps, the issue of non filing can become manageable, and you will take the first step of getting the issue behind you. In the case of New York State, they also have a voluntary disclosure process where they waive penalties for not filing or paying the taxes on time, so that is also a good reason to use their program.